Sunday, August 4, 2013

In Memory of Mary

This blog post was written by a gentleman who asked to remain anonymous, in memory of the distant cousin he knew only as a child. He is telling what happened as best as he can remember it, this far back.

Picture courtesy of the Public Health Library, available at:

This isn't a neat story, a precise one, nor is it, by its very nature, an accurate one. What I have to give are the memories of a 6 year old, as filtered through the mind of that boy at age 60+. There are no photographs, no stories, no newspaper articles. Just a rather smudged entry in a family bible reading January something, 1948, and a little clearer further down the page, August 11th, 1959.

But I remember Mary.

I was born in 1952, so I would have been perhaps 6 when I saw her the first time. I hadn't heard of her before. Her family was related to mine, but distantly, and but for chance and the fact that we all lived in the same general area I'd never have met her. I knew nothing other than what mother told us the day before we drove down to visit the third time: You must be nice, you must be quiet. She's very sick, she has polio.


You don't know what that word meant in the year 1958. It wasn't a disease. It was the man walking past you with crutches, one leg shortened, that you couldn't stare at because he had polio. It was the clerk with a withered arm that you mustn't stare at, she had polio. The man down the street who couldn't walk well, polio. I spoke with him a few times before I was told not to bother him (Now, of course, I know it's because he wanted me to go to the store to buy him cigarettes. Don't laugh. 1958? Cigarettes were a health food back then).

It was socially unacceptable and awkward to see polio. They hid from it in fear. I think people were afraid of the disease, and stigmatized those who had it.

She had polio, so they took her to the sanitarium.
Mom, is the sanitarium part of hell?
No, it's where they treat people with polio.
Why do we have to go?
We need to visit her, she's very lonely. And I want to talk to Jim and Margaret.

So we went, a very puzzled boy in the back seat. And we went into the hospital and down a corridor that smelled of disinfectant and bleach and into this room. There was an iron lung in this room; I think several, though only one really sticks out in my mind.

To a six year old, the machine was massive, huge. It towered over me and seemed to go on forever. It was a faded yellow and it made noises, a quiet hissing sound like a giant snake. And in it was Mary.

I remember her hair, it was cut short, almost like a boys. Her face was pale and gaunt, tired. I had to stand up on a stool to talk to her. ("Will the boy be ok?" "Oh yes, he's been vaccinated.") I remember her eyes, they were dull and sad. We spoke a bit, and she asked me about the weather. I told her what it was like outside and she brightened up a bit and smiled. She had, I think, a beautiful smile, but like so much here I don't remember it that well.

I do remember the dreams I had that week, though. I dreamed of being chased by a yellow, hissing thing through dark woods, of not being able to move because my legs were frozen or missing. And the snake would get me and take me to the sanitarium.

We went over to Mary's parents house after we were finished in the hospital. I remember that, her mother made fudge (I sometimes wonder if Mary had ever gotten any. I hope so, it was good fudge.).
And we talked, or rather my parents and Mary's parents talked, and we visited with Mary's siblings. Then we went home.

We went on at least two, possibly three more visits to Mary. Each time the stage was the same, I remember the big room with curtains and women in starched white presiding over the iron lungs (Ah, I DO remember. There were several in the room, perhaps four.). And Mary would be in her coffin and I would get up on my stool to talk to her. I never saw her outside of her iron lung. To this day I don't know if she was in it for the entire day or if she was allowed out. I just don't know...

I don't remember much of what we talked about. I was, after all, six or seven, and Mary wasn't that much older. I know we spoke of the weather and that I spoke of what her family was doing and what her cat was up to. It made her smile, and she seemed to enjoy my company, but I don't remember much of it at all.

I have very clear memories of the last few words we spoke to each other. I got up and we spoke a couple of minutes, and then I asked her what she wanted. Her face clouded up and she said "Oh, nothing," and tried to smile. I said "Ok," and since it was her mother's turn to talk, got down from my stool. But I heard what she said next. Oh yes, I heard it. I've never before told another living soul what she said.
She whispered, "I just want to die." (I'm sure she didn't want me to hear her.)

And, well, she did die. I am not sure when, but it was two months or more after our final visit. I remember the funeral; we went. I thought it was nice, she never had much at the sanitarium and at least there she had flowers and people talking about how brave she was and how sad it was.

There are so many things here I don't know. I can't even tell you honestly what she looked like, healthy or ill. There are no photographs of her that I can find. I can't tell you where she lived before polio, or where her hospital was, or much else, really. Her life is a lost and vanished chapter, and I think that I may be the only one who remembers. But I do.

I remember Mary.

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